FAMILY; AN ESSAY BY TJ SAWYERR
WORDS TJ SAWYER - PHOTOGRAPHY FILIPE PHITZGERARD - FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: JERRELL, OMAR, TJ SAWYERR AND HASS
It is very difficult, as a young black man, to put into words how I and the entire black community are feeling right now. After the initial month-long flood of Black Lives Matter support, catalysed by the tragic events of the 25th May in Minneapolis, our Instagram feeds are slowly being refilled with substance-less selfies and the names Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks are no longer trending with their killers still walking free. This hurts, not only because it speaks to the embarrassingly dysfunctional nature of our justice system but because, as black people, we are so painfully aware that at any given time our mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter could be the next George Floyd, or the next Stephen Lawrence, murdered mercilessly despite their innocence by the very people sworn to protect them.
War veteran and Olympian Louis Zamperini once said ‘The world, we discovered, doesn't love you as your family loves you’ and this sentiment has never rung truer. Family is everything to us. As black people, we are born into a life where it is solely our next of kin upon whom we can rely for love and support in a world filled with hate. Our family raises us, nurtures us, and shapes us into the humans we become, even when it may come at the cost of their own endeavours. This sacrifice is almost inexplicable. The self-interested nature of humanity has never been summarised better than by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who described the current state of life as a ‘state of war and competition’, with self-interest at the roots of every one of our actions.
Now, while I believe this to be a raw, yet fair summary of life, I would also say that there must be exceptions to this suggestion. For example, parents who sacrifice their lives for their children, or a young man who takes a bullet for his brother. There’s no incentive there other than love; a love so strong that it can travel through generations and across countries and continents. This is why we fight. We fight every day for our ancestors, incarcerated and abused at the hands of slave owners over the centuries, lynched by racist thugs in the streets, toppled at the feet of a system designed to orchestrate their demise. It is this very love that can carry us forward.
Unfortunately, however, in this day and age, this love rarely extends much further than our blood. Once we step out of our doorstep, over the threshold, and into the real world, purity and honesty become incredibly hard to come by. We step into a world contaminated by personal agendas, plagued by warped social constructs, completely shaped by an education system designed to misinform and mislead. The wisdom imparted upon me by my parents and grandparents over the years has been ten-fold more valuable than any single lesson I’ve learnt at school. From the day that we step into our first primary school class, we are indoctrinated, drip-fed a warped image of a society shaped to suit a white narrative.
It was my mother and father who really showed me the light, or should I say the darkness, of the world, stepping in where the education system fell so short. They would read me books about the efforts of Nelson Mandela in Apartheid South Africa, a man who became my idol for a long time. I would always be encouraged to look out for the other black kids in my majority-white primary school, and during the years where I was one of two black students in secondary school, I was told to stick proudly to my roots although often it seemed beneficial to disassociate from them. Of course, I learnt to code-switch, to speak eloquently, and to adapt to the white bubble that surrounded me but it was my parents that made sure I never lost sight of who I really was. This is the advice that every young black man should hear. Black is acceptable. Black is beautiful. I’m black and proud now but once upon a time, I wasn’t, like so many others in this country. It was my family who imparted this confidence in me, and that’s why I can have this voice today.
Over these years I have learnt that the black community is something very special. There is no single ethnic group more tightly interlinked. But we have to learn to spread the love beyond our residence, we have to realise that every man fighting this battle is our family, regardless of blood linkage or ethnicity. Race is a substance-less social construct conceptualised to divide. Acting upon and indulging in this construct is playing directly into the hands of those who implement this system. We are one race and always will be. Protesting for 6 weeks straight with thousands of my brothers and sisters showed me the very best of humanity. Those who have shown ignorance and opposition to the cause represent the very worst. Once we learn to love those who stand with us, we will be able to overcome those who do not. Unity is the single biggest threat to the white planet upon which we live. There is an inseparable connection between every human which for years we have been conditioned to ignore and reject.
Many people speak of the idea of Karma as a complex spiritual equaliser with deep religious roots, but as I see it, it’s just a mask for a core truth of life. In this life, you have to give something to get something. Sacrifice and selflessness have huge relevance to this battle. If you cannot love, you won’t be loved. If you do not fight, there won’t be change. It sounds simple, it isn’t, but burning bridges doesn’t fuel change. It all starts with self-sacrifice and building love and appreciation for those who surround you. That’s the true meaning of family.
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